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Chop't generates plenty of green by being prepared

Be prepared. That is the mantra, as well as the operations challenge, at Chop't Creative Salad Co. in New York City, a pioneer among the numerous fast-casual salad concepts that are cropping up across the United States. Since it opened its first location in 2001, Chop't has been striving to meet demand at lunch, its key day part, when the line often snakes out the door. The average check is $10 and daily orders can reach 1,000 at a single store.

The company, with three units in Manhattan, is on a growth spurt, which has added heat to the need for ease of operation. Next month it is opening the first of three locations in Washington, D.C., and there are plans for a fourth in Manhattan by next year.

Chop't makes every salad to order from a choice of 60 ingredients that are prepared in-house, including roast turkey. There are five types of lettuce and 28 dressings made once, and sometimes twice, a day. Customers create their own salad, or order suggested combinations like Grilled Asian.

The trick is to have all food ready, with plenty of replacements in easy reach, and a staff trained to work in unison, said co-founder Tony Shure. Chop't, a privately-held company, has 100 employees. Shure declined to discuss revenues, but said there were double-digit increases last year.

Getting a smooth flow has taken Shure and co-founder Colin McCabe, who started Chop't soon after college, several years. In late 2004, the native New Yorkers and former high school buddies (and roommates at the University of Wisconsin at Madison), hired their first operations executive, Michael LaPlaca, a veteran of the Cosi chain. "He took us from a mom-and-pop to a real restaurant company," Shure said.

In its newest location, in a busy office district, there is a serpentine queue that accommodates up to 30 people. It takes about eight minutes for the last customer to complete their transaction, McGrath said.

The manager points customers to one of three stations. The food is arrayed in small stainless steel pans inset in a custom-designed refrigerated case. Behind is a wall of lettuce in large tubs, creating a lush green background.

Three employees man each station - an assembler and two choppers. Two more replenish the greens. Another is dedicated to managing utensils, including chopping mats, which are replaced for each salad.

The customer moves down the line with their salad. The assembler hands it to the chopper. The chopper uses a double-bladed mezzaluna to mix it all together, then tosses it in dressing in a stainless steel bowl and packs it into a clear plastic take-out container. The dressings are in easy reach. The customer takes the salad and proceeds to the checkout stand at the end of the line. The salad can also be made into a wrap sandwich.

"There are no people crossing, even behind the lines," McGrath said. "Everything is right in front of them."

Catering and delivery orders, about 25% of sales, are handled in the kitchen to free up the main line.

All ingredients have a back-up tray pre-packed and hidden below the refrigerated counter for quick interchange. Ingredients that require cooking are prepared at a commissary in one store and delivered to the other locations each morning. Cheddar cheese is shredded in house and chick peas are prepared from scratch.

Lettuce is key. Chop't goes through 4,800 heads of romaine alone each week. Lettuce is prepared at each location daily. One employee's sole job is to wash lettuce. It is picked over for bugs and bad leaves, and then washed with an organic rinse and dried in a spinner.

Chop't has streamlined its purchasing to work with one main distributor rather than cherry-pick from numerous vendors. "Now we have less phone calls and less separate papers to fill out," said McGrath.

Handling the rush while hungry New Yorkers - arguably the nation's most impatient lunch crowd - watch, might inspire some operators to simplify. But Shure wouldn't have that. He wants Chop't to please everyone. "Our breadth of homemade ingredients lets us do that," he said.

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